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Energous still isn’t delivering truly wireless charging, but says it’s coming later this year

Energous has been promising to deliver truly wireless charging to all the gadgets in our lives for a few years now, but the company still isn’t ready to deliver it.

In a phone call ahead of CES, Energous CEO Steve Rizzone said that wireless charging transmitters, which can charge devices wirelessly from several feet away, are now supposed to begin shipping by the end of 2017.

The last time Energous was at CES, in 2015, transmitters were supposed to ship by the end of that year, too. But Rizzone says the plan changed after Energous signed a “key strategic partnership” just a month after the convention, leading to a renewed focus on miniaturizing the technology before shipping it. The deal Energous made also gave its partner the right to be the first to ship its charging technology inside of phones, laptops, tablets, and certain wearables and accessories, so Energous’ initial plan for battery phone cases had to be put on hold.

That “key” partner is suspected to be Apple, and Energous — though declining to state its partner’s name — is certainly happy to fuel the speculation. Rizzone says the partnership is with “one of the largest consumer electronic companies in the world. I cannot tell you who it is, but I can virtual guarantee that you have products from this company on your person, sitting on your desk, or at home.”

The identity of Energous’ partner is critically important to assessing the company’s chances of success. That’s because Energous is offering yet another charging technology — called WattUp — and it faces the chicken and egg problem of needing wide support in order to catch on. Gadgets that support WattUp charging will be able to charge off of any Energous-powered transmitter. So if Apple tries to put a WattUp transmitter in every home, then Energous is golden. But if, say, Dell tries to do the same thing, Energous is facing a much steeper uphill battle.

While Energous’ most exciting tech isn’t ready yet, the company is ready to start shipping something — unfortunately, it’s a much less compelling start. Rather than truly wireless transmitters, Energous is going to start with traditional “wireless” charging pads, which require devices to be placed on top of them. There’s nothing particularly special about the charging pads, however devices that support them now will also be able to charge over the actual wireless transmitters that are supposed to ship later this year.

Essentially, it’s a way for Energous to start building out an ecosystem early, before its tech is ready for primetime. That way, when wireless transmitters do begin to ship, there’ll already be a handful of gadgets ready to be used with them.

Energous won’t make any of these devices itself. Instead, it’ll sell the radios and technology to companies that want to use them, be it for their own gadgets, transmitters, or charging pads. It’s announcing the first six partners today, none of which you’re likely to have heard of. The highlights include a pair of Bluetooth trackers from a company called Chipolo, a portable phone charger from Peri, and a hearing aid from SK Telesys.

It’s a far less ambitious start for Energous, but it is, at least, a start. At CES this week, Energous is supposed to demo its technology inside of a charging pad, a short-range wireless charger, and a wireless charger with a range up to 18 feet. In 2015, Energous’ demo showed a product that just barely worked, so whether we can actually see devices charging this year is a major question.

Another question is whether Energous’ vision really makes sense. Though Rizzone emphasized that Energous’ transmitters can be fast or slow, meant for gadgets big and small, it sounds like we’re mostly going to see them in one form: slow. That’s supposed to be made up for by the fact that gadgets will always be charging when they’re in range, but whether that happens depends on just how far of a range they have. It could be a great idea. Or we could need a whole lot of transmitters.

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